What generally falls under the “horror” genre in film and TV breaks down into roughly three, sometimes overlapping subgenres:
Phobic dramas are designed to evoke fear in the audience by primarily psychological devices rather than blood and gore.
A classic exponent is Hitchcock (e.g. Psycho; The Birds). A more recent exponent is Shyamalan (e.g. The Sixth Sense).
This type of “horror” show isn’t essentially different from a ride on a rollercoaster.
Paradoxically, a lot of people like to be scared out of their wits as long as it’s safe.
Sadistic dramas, generally known as “slasher films,” attempt, to some extent to evoke fear in the audience through simulated violence.
But there’s a further difference. In phobic dramas, the audience is meant to identify with the victim.
In sadistic dramas, by contrast, the audience is meant to identify with the avenger, tormenter, or serial killer. Sadistic dramas are voyeuristic in an especially evil way. For it’s a legal way to be a vicarious, serial killer. Jonathan Moorhead recently did a post on the subject.
Due to the increasing decadence of society as well as computer graphics, it’s possible to simulate mutilation with extreme realism.
Finally, occultic dramas generally deal with diabolical creatures, although this can be counterbalanced by saints, angels, and other suchlike.
For some reason, vampires and Antichrist figures are a staple of occultic dramas.
Classic examples include Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, and The Omen.
The occultic subgenre intersects with the Christian worldview. Mind you, occultic dramas are rarely distinguished by their orthodoxy, and some of the occult critters like vampires and werewolves have no immediate analogue in Christian theology.
But at a more general level, this genre is parasitic on Christian supernaturalism and demonology. That distinguishes it from other genres, such as sci-fi or the Western.
“Supernatural,” the TV series which debuted last year on the now-defunct WB, and was picked up by the CW for the second season, is a current vehicle of the occultic category.
It’s about two twenty-something brothers who are demon-slayers by vocation or avocation.
From what I’ve seen of it, a lot of the episodes belong the freak-of-the-week variety. It recycles storylines which have been used and reused since Night Gallery, Dark Shadows, and Kolchak: The Night Stalker. Yes, I know—I’m showing my age, aren’t I?
The treatment is often rather campy. I’ve tuned out of several episodes after the first five or ten minutes.
More interesting than the show itself is what it tells you about the pop culture. Would the show secularize or rationalize the occultic dimension in order to downplay the Christian roots of this genre?
Classically, the part played by the Winchester brothers would be performed by a priest or exorcist.
Not surprisingly, the show generally takes the tradition out of the church. However, a couple of episodes have in some measure restored the ecclesiastical setting.
In “Faith,” Dean, who suffers from terminal heart disease, is taken by his brother Sam to see a a faith healer.
In this series, Dean is an unbeliever, while Sam is more of a seeker or generic believer—though not a Christian.
How will this episode depict the faith healer? As a rule, television depicts the faith-healer as a charlatan.
Yet in this episode, there’s a twist. The faith-healer is sincere, and, in a sense, he is able to cure the people who come to him.
But unbeknownst to him, he has been empowered by black magic, for his wife has, in effect, made a pact with the devil.
This episode also presents a very sympathetic character (Layla) with terminal brain cancer. And, at the end of the show, Dean is inching towards the light of faith. Here’s one snatch of dialogue:
Dean: It must be rough, to believe in something so much and have it disappoint you like that.
Layla: You wanna hear something weird? I'm okay, really. I guess if you're going to have faith you can't just have it when the miracles happen, you have to have it when they don't.
Dean: So what now?
Layla: God works in mysterious ways. Goodbye Dean.
Dean: Hey, um, you know, I'm not much of the praying type. But I'm gonna pray for you.
Layla: Well, there's a miracle right there.
The treatment of religious themes falls short of Christianity, but it also rises above what we’ve come to expect of standard TV fare.
Then, in the second season, we have what is, in some respects, a sequel: “Houses of the Holy.”
This episode does center on the church. And the primary guest character is a priest (Fr. Reynolds), who is portrayed a strong, principled man of faith
Dean has since reverted to his secular default setting.
The story is about what seems to be an avenging angel. Dean doesn’t believe in angels, and this is why:
Dean: I'll tell you who else had faith like that. Mom. She used to tell me when she tucked me in that angels were watching over us. In fact, that was the last thing she ever said to me.
Sam: You never told me that.
Dean: What's to tell? She was wrong. There was nothing protecting her.
That’s rather perceptive, isn’t it? Dean is an unbeliever, because he’s a disillusioned believer. His atheism is emotional rather than intellectual. His false expectations were dashed, leaving him embittered and hardened.
There is also an exchange between Dean and his brother:
Dean: What's next, you're going to start praying everyday?
Sam: I do pray.
Sam: I do pray everyday, I have for a while.
Once again, this is unusual for standard TV fare—especially a show that targets the same demographic niche as sci-fi. Indeed, some viewers resent the religiosity of these episodes.
There’s also a point in the dramatic arc where the brothers trade place. Sam is looking for a sign. He thinks he found it in what looked to be an angelic apparition. But it turns out that appearances were deceiving. This leaves him in a state of despair. He was grasping at straws, and the straw he was clinging to snapped.
By contrast, Dean receives a sign, although he wasn’t seeking a sign—indeed, even though he is spiritually evasive and obdurate.
In the end, Sam questions his faith while Dean questions his doubt.